Bernie Telsey and Britton Smith of BAC
Bernie Telsey and Britton Smith of BAC

The Importance of Uncomfortable Conversations with Bernie Telsey & Britton Smith

The murders of Breonna Taylor & George Floyd were pivotal catalysts for a national reckoning around racial injustice. Americans could no longer ignore these broken systems and policies that contribute to violence and divide. Simultaneously, the Broadway community began to acknowledge the ways that its own inner workings mirrored the very systems they were fighting against. In June, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC) hosted a three-day forum for the theater industry to process its own culpability in racism. Using its unique process of collaboration based on its work at Columbia Law School, BAC worked to connect the dots between the painful experiences of Black and brown industry members and the systems and policies that enabled those experiences.

Since the Forum, BAC has been interviewing industry leaders around “accountability” both on Broadway and beyond. What does it mean to hold each other accountable as a community? How can we ensure that when Broadway returns, every single industry member is able to participate fully and has the ability to speak up without retaliation?

Here, BAC’s Artistic Director (and Be More Chill star) Britton Smith joins renowned casting director and co-founder of MCC Theater Bernard Telsey in a conversation about accountability in leadership and the importance of uncomfortable conversations.

This is an edited version of their 48-minute conversation. To view their full conversation on Instagram, click here.

Britton Smith: How has the staff been showing up in this time with all of the Black Lives Matter and the COVID; all merging?

Bernard Telsey: Yeah, it’s been… You know, even with the one or two projects we have, which is basically the work now, we still show up every day on Zoom talking about not only our office but Black Lives Matter and the way we’re all dealing with that. And everybody’s coming at it from different avenues because we’re all different people and we have a lot of different ages. And it’s been a wonderful safe space to really talk and to push each other and to do a lot of sharing. People are really vulnerable and even though these are people who have been in my office for some 20 some-odd years, 15 years, or a few less than 5 years. It’s really been a beautiful place to share and be honest with each other. And sometimes, it’s in front of everyone or it’s a sidebar and we’re all trying to work together on reestablishing how we want to be as an office which is really the goal. 

Britton Smith: Right.  

Bernard Telsey: You know, it’s really how do we unpack the past and how do we move forward with real change?

Britton Smith: Yeah, you know I mean these conversations that you’re having with your office, that’s predominantly white, have you had to bring in somebody or bring in people of color who can share more stories and more ways of thinking about it? Like… So many of my white friends are “blind” and not evil about it but they just don’t understand. So how have you been able to grapple with these issues with a predominately white staff?

Bernard Telsey: Yeah, I mean we have 4 members who are people of color on the staff and they’ve been participating in that and I heard this wonderful woman Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson from Deep  Equity (Disruptive Equity Education Project) who is a woman who is working with me personally, with the leaders of the organization and the entire staff. And we brought her on for the next year to work with us on this. It’s been… you know, like, everybody has gone into therapy at some time in their life. It’s been really like being with an incredible therapist because within minutes she makes you want to be a better person and she makes it okay to not know certain things. She keeps saying “You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, you need to make a change.” 

Britton Smith: Yeah. Has this moment helped you see your own role in the machine of the business that is new for you? We see you as… I see you as Bernie Telsey, the man with the power; casting everything. How have you come up against that idea of your identity? Is it real? Is it false? Do you have the power? Do you feel like using your power to be racist or anti-racist? How do you feel?

Bernie shakes his head once power is brought up. 

Bernard Telsey: Yeah, I don’t think of myself as someone with that power. I mean, yes, I do recognize that we’re one of the biggest offices working in the theater doing casting but I’ve always felt it’s a collaborative art and it’s a collaborative situation with me and the rest of the staff… But yes, during this process, I’ve learned that that isn’t how Actors necessarily feel or have felt. You know, there’s a lot of power that comes with the position of casting; consciously or unconsciously. And it’s about how we need to be responsible to that power and how to not lean into that power… I realize in my own sort of way, how I probably haven’t done the best job in being inclusive. So it’s been eye-opening, you know. And it’s been… okay, if you do have a position of power then how do you use it, so you can actually be more inclusive rather than not. Being more vocal about diversity you know and I feel like every casting director has always been about that but how can we REALLY be about that. 

Britton Smith: Right. You know, people have so many different ideas of what diversity really is.